Monday, 22 November 2004

Debunking Intelligent Design Creationism

Debunking Intelligent Design Creationism
Excellent review article by Paul R. Gross:
Not one of the ID claims is sustained, let alone proven, in the massive output of ID to date. Most of the claims are shown to be simply bad science. The expository style of WIDF is for the most part respectful of the authors and claims analyzed. It is therefore very remarkable that those
presumably qualified ID authors should have committed themselves, and to some extent their academic careers, to a relentless, public elaboration of soft claims, bad arguments, and plain mistakes. One can only guess that they are driven by motivation and sincere feelings other than simple dedication to doing the best possible science.
Read the whole review. I haven't read Why Intelligent Design Fails, so I can't recommend it; instead, I'd happily lend anyone my copy of Robert T. Pennock's brilliant Tower of Babel: The Evidence Against the New Creationism, which is the most readable, sustained demolition of contemporary creationism I've come across.

I've come across more theologians who don't "get" evolution, or who simply don't recognise that ID isn't a legitimate scientific option, than I care to admit. One of the many pet academic projects I'd love to pursue, but readily admit I'll probably never get around to now, would focus on "mainstream" Christian theology's failure to recognise that creationism is a real threat, because of its resentment of the atheism of many prominent evolutionists - I heard one Church of England bishop say in a seminar I attended, "I've got nothing against evolution, but Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett just go too far".

Mike Gatting: anti-apartheid hero

There are all sorts of good reasons why England shouldn't be touring Zimbabwe, but Mike Gatting is perhaps the least qualified person to advance them. Still, he advances them anyway, in this Observer article. Gatting doesn't just say the tour is wrong: he says it's worse than the rebel tour to South Africa he led in 1990. "That may sound hypocritical" - yes, Mike, it does - "but the circumstances then were very different. When I signed up for that 'rebel tour' it was in the knowledge that change was already under way in South Africa". He goes on, "I'm not going to pretend that knowing changes were afoot was the main motivation for going" - no, the wads of cash waved in his face probably made more of a difference - "but it did help to persuade me and I'm sure it was a major factor in influencing the two black England players who signed up". Some of Mike Gatting's best friends are black.

Gatting goes on to claim that "Another big difference between my situation and that of present captain Michael Vaughan is that he has the full backing of the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB)". That's a difference, yes, but it's one which places Vaughan in a more difficult position than Gatting was in - for Vaughan to decide not to go would be a brave and right decision, but it would still place a great strain on the England team he leads, and possibly threaten his position as captain. Meanwhile, Gatting's decision to lead a tour harmed English and world cricket. It helped to undermine sporting sanctions against South Africa, as well as weakening the England team available to play real test matches.

The article reaches a pinnacle of self-justifying absurdity with its conclusion:
In the event, our tour was cut short when the organisers reached an agreement with the ANC that, in return for its cancellation, the political representatives of the black majority would help to fast-track the process of South Africa's readmission to official international sport. I can't see anything positive like that coming from this week in Zimbabwe.
So, his tour was justified because "the political representatives of the black majority" made important concessions in order to get it cancelled (this somewhat undermines his description earlier in the article of President F W de Klerk, who "was happy to speak to us and reassure us that he was not opposed to the planned tour", as "the leading reformer").

It's interesting that Gatting has managed to interpret the 1990 rebel tour as a vital blow in the struggle to end apartheid. But it's hardly evidence that his views on the rights and wrongs of England's tour of Zimbabwe should be taken remotely seriously.

Kennedy assassination game

It's OK, it's educational:
Ewing said the game was designed to undermine the theory there was some shadowy plot behind the assassination. "We believe passionately there was no conspiracy," he said.
Of course, even if you can prove that it was possible for Lee Harvey Oswald to shoot Kennedy acting alone, that doesn't prove that Lee Harvey Oswald did shoot Kennedy acting alone. A flaw, perhaps, but there are clues that the game producers' intentions aren't purely educational:
Shooting the image of Kennedy in the right spots in the right sequence adds to the score, while "errors" like shooting first lady Jacqueline Kennedy lead to deductions.

Each shot can be replayed in slow motion, and the bullets can be tracked as they travel and pass through Kennedy's digitally recreated body. Players can choose to see blood by pressing a "blood effects" option.

Hours of fun.

Sunday, 21 November 2004

Prince Charles and his mentor

In all the discussion of the rights and wrongs of Prince Charles' comments about education (whatever else you want to say about them, if you're going to criticise people who "think they are qualified far beyond their technical capabilities", and you're the heir to the throne purely on the basis of who your mother is, then you shouldn't include "head of state" in your list of jobs to which underqualified people unjustly aspire), I've been most struck by various references to the Prince's relationship with David Lorimer, who's edited a book about him called Radical Prince.

I met David Lorimer a couple of years ago when he organised a two-day conference in Durham which I attended - it was entirely free, it was only a short walk away from where I was living at the time, and it gave me a break from my PhD research. I don't know much about the financing of the Scientific and Medical Network, which Lorimer runs, but the cost of organising a two-day conference with free food and accommodation for around 50 people must have been pretty high. The Network's purpose, amongst other things, is to find:

a) evidence (not proof) of planning by or purpose of some dynamic mind other than that of any incarnate person connected with the research.
b) evidence of the existence of energies, laws and forms of life that cannot be directly apprehended by our normal physical senses.
c) evidence that the physical structure of living or inanimate things is dependent for its maintenance and growth on a more basic non-physical field.
d) well attested instances of higher sense perception (HSP). Professor E R Laithwaite's article "Inner Voice" in the New Scientist of December 20th appears to furnish an example of this.
e) well attested cases of mind functioning independently of the body (including out-of-the-body experiences)
f) evidence of the continuity of life after the death of the body.
g) the more than usually conclusive cases of healing through paranormal agencies (since there are so many cases of healing to choose from).
- from Wider Horizons, pp. 11-12 (see below)
Conjunctions of words like "evidence", "well attested" and "conclusive" with words like "dynamic mind", "more basic non-physical field" and "paranormal" are quite amusing, but they indicate that some basic courses in the philosophy of science and the philosophy of religion might be productive.

There's some information about the conference here, and a report on it (by David Lorimer) here. The conference was simultaneously entertaining and depressing: entertaining because so much patent nonsense was being peddled by those present; depressing because it was being peddled, and lapped up, with so much enthusiasm. As a general rule, where the participants were scientifically literate - and several of them held teaching posts in university science faculties - they had little understanding of theology, tending to caricature religion in general as fire-and-brimstone fundamentalism or at the very least to see it in monolithic terms. I participated in various small-group discussions in which it seemed to me that we were being railroaded into accepting conclusions of the "if this option doesn't make sense, then this one must be true" variety (doubts exist about this possible scientific explanation... therefore believe this paranormal one!). I remember being particularly irritated, given my area of research at the time, by assumptions that mystics were somehow more reliable sources of truth than the monolithic, tradition-bound structures of authority within conventional religion (as false dichotomies go, this one goes a long way: lots of Christian mystics were made saints, for God's sake!).

I didn't particularly enjoy the evening session on shamanic journeying either.

At the conference, I was given a copy of a book, Wider Horizons: Explorations in Science and Human Experience. Perhaps the most amusing part of this collection is a chart, "Worldviews in Transition", by Prof Mark B. Woodhouse, Associate Professor of Philosophy at Georgia State University (pp. 260-264). The chart seeks to lay out shifting paradigms, under the headings "Past/Current" and "Current/Developing". Here are a few of them:
Past/Current: Only sound and the electromagnetic spectrum have "frequencies" that are of much use to us. Standard physics, chemistry and biology are what we need to control our environments.
Current/Developing: Everything has a vibratory signature, from angels and love to disease and the weapons of war. Power accrues to those who understand and access those signatures and forms.

Past/Current: Humans evolved from a chemical soup by accident, random mutation, and natural selection. Keep refining Darwin.
Current/Developing: Not without periodic "boosts" from sources external to the planet. Interspecies evolution is not biochemically explained.

Past/Current: It always costs a greater amount of some form of energy to produce a lesser amount of another form of energy, e.g., the gasolene engine. Energy production is not free. We can increase efficiency, but never over 99%.
Current/Developing: Esoteric technologies are emerging to master gravity (thus space travel), produce five times the quality and quantity of food, detoxify the environment, eliminate gas engines, and extract "free" energy from the vacuum field.

Past/Current: When we die, we either rot in the grave or go to (some version of) Heaven or Hell.
Current/Developing: Reincarnation promises to become the prevailing "after life" philosophy.
and, my favourite:
Past/Current: In theory, extraterrestrial races exist somewhere "out there". But they are not here and would have no interest in us, even if they could travel here efficiently. Besides, if they were here, our governments would tell us.
Current/Developing: Extraterrestrial races have visited Earth for thousands of years and are currently in, on, or around the planet. If they are not formally recognized as of this writing (1998) they soon will be.
I've no idea whether Prince Charles believes in this stuff. All I know is that a man widely described as a significant influence on his thinking was prepared to publish it.

An afterthought: David Icke, and others, believe that various well-known figures are in fact extraterrestrial lizards who control the earth. If this were true, Prince Charles would, presumably, know all about it - he is, after all, fingered by Icke as one of the lizards. There's a bit of an overlap between the world-view of the Scientific and Medical Network and that of David Icke - an interest in supernatural forces, alien influence and the refusal of the "mainstream" to take seriously any challenges to its assumptions and agenda. Could it be that Charles' interest in what might be charitably described as left-field, esoteric new-age pseudo-science is in fact a cry for help, an attempt to tell the world that Icke is right? Perhaps the lizards are real, and it takes one to know one.

Wednesday, 17 November 2004

Useful comparisons

I don't know what I think about the forthcoming ban on smoking in public places - I know the arguments on both sides, I find many of them convincing, and this is one of those places where I'm not sure how to weigh "liberty" against "protection". But here's an article which is making it easier for me to make up my mind: Michael Fitzpatrick's We have ways of making you stop smoking, in Spiked. It claims to set out "the parallels - and differences - between Nazi Germany's 'war on cancer' and New Labour's crusade against the evil weed".

It's good to see, right from the start, that he's keen to look at the differences as well as the parallels. After all, "New Labour are Nazis" would be a little one-sided and unfair, as of course would be "New Labour aren't Nazis". And he's big on the differences:

There are of course also striking differences between the Nazi and New Labour anti-smoking campaigns. The anti-Semitic and eugenic themes of the 1930s are absent today; many of Germany's leading anti-tobacco activists were also war criminals. Another difference is in the consequences of an authoritarian public health policy for science. Whereas in Nazi Germany pioneering scientific research took place into the health effects of tobacco, we find today in Britain that epidemiology has been degraded in the service of political expediency.

There you go. Points in the minus column for both sides. The Nazi anti-smokers were antisemitic, eugenicist war criminals, and the New Labour anti-smokers aren't doing enough research. One-all, as all right-thinking people would agree. Given this, the "marked reluctance among British medical authorities to acknowledge German achievements in research into the health effects of smoking" seems profoundly unjust - what could possibly have tainted their work in the eyes of later scientists? There's more along the same lines:

There are also differences in the anti-smoking campaigns. The Nazi emphasis on smoking as a threat to racial purity and national efficiency is absent in modern Britain.

You'd hope that Dr Fitzpatrick would spot that the disagreement on the importance of racial purity is more significant than the (correct, for goodness' sake) agreement that smoking is bad for you - but apparently not. Throughout the article, the differences are an afterthought to the central theme, which is "Look! The Nazis tried to discourage smoking! Your government does too! Whatever can this mean?" The correct answer, which is "not a great deal", doesn't come up. In fact, on some issues New Labour is even worse than Nazi Germany:

There is some evidence that among young people, these measures [the intensive anti-smoking policies of the early 1990s] may have been counterproductive - a danger recognised by the Nazi public health authorities who recognised that 'forbidden fruit is tempting'. However, the ineffectiveness of more coercive measures in Britain has not led to any questioning of the policy, but simply to calls for more of the same.
It's a pity that the Nazis didn't apply the "forbidden fruit is tempting" logic to other areas, and chosen not to criticise, say, Jews, communists, homosexuals, disabled people, Gypsies, Slavs and various other members of an extremely long list of people they very explicitly didn't like at all. But strangely, and somewhat inconveniently for Dr Fitzpatrick's thesis, it appears that the Nazis' attitude to smokers was considerably less draconian than their attitude to a lot of other people New Labour seems to be perfectly happy to live with.

Dr Fitzpatrick's conclusion is:

By curtailing the autonomy of the self-determining individual, authoritarian public health policies infantilise society, weaken democracy and diminish humanity.

This may very well be a fair point, in general. But in this context, it's just not. It's perfectly true - indeed, it's an understatement - that Nazi Germany possessed an infantilised society, a weak democracy and diminished humanity. But we don't draw that conclusion from its public health policies. There's not much going on here beyond a really rather crass attempt to taint the government by association.

Comparisons of Labour policies with those of Nazi Germany do come up from time to time in other areas - Hitler banned hunting, and the private ownership of guns, apparently (I say "apparently" because they never seem to feature high up the charge-sheet when I read about him), and you can sometimes see Countryside Alliance types carrying placards showing Tony Blair - or Alun Michael - as Nazis. But "Hitler did it so it must be bad" is a pretty terrible argument for anything. You sometimes see it from anti-vegetarians, but you'd never, ever see it from, say, Jews. The best argument against exterminating Jews is not "a nasty man once did it so it must be wrong". You simply don't need it (anyone who needs an argument against exterminating Jews is in any case highly unlikely to think that Hitler was a nasty man). As a general rule, if people think that the Hitler comparison makes their side stronger, their side is likely to be extremely weak - or at the very least, their argumentative strategy is awful.

I'm perfectly willing to accept, on this as on any other issue, that "We should do this because the people arguing against it use terrible arguments" (which is, after all, a variant on "Hitler did it so it must be bad") is a bad reason to make a decision on anything. But they make it hard to stand with them, they really do.

Tuesday, 9 November 2004

Church Times article - Mental Health Bill

I had an article in the Church Times (subscribers only, and I'm not one) last week, on the Mental Health Bill. Infuriatingly, they managed to get my name wrong - I'm not Tom Wilkinson - so it's just as well from my perspective that I'm no longer in a world where success is closely related to the number of traceable publications you have.

Anyway, here it is:
A Bill that will make the situation worse

The draft Mental Health Bill will enable the Government to lock up more people for being ill

When the Government published its draft Mental Health Bill last month, the Sun welcomed the news with the headline ‘Maniacs To Be Caged’. The headline neatly summed up what is worst about the new proposed legislation, which would make many more people subject to compulsory treatment, and which tacitly accepts the tabloid-driven hysteria which routinely sees people with a mental illness as dangerous ‘maniacs’.

People with a mental illness sometimes need to be given compulsory treatment in a secure setting, to protect themselves or others. The law should recognise that, and set out clear criteria for its use. But compulsion should always be a last resort. A secure setting is seldom a therapeutic environment, and patients who are given forced treatment are unlikely to respond as well as patients who consent.

Compulsory admission can be a traumatic experience. It is humiliating, and can damage a patient’s condition and delay recovery. The new Bill – not to be confused with the Mental Capacity Bill – would make enforced treatment easier to impose. The Mental Health Alliance, a coalition of 64 organisations (including professional bodies, service-user groups, mental health charities and the Church of England Mission and Public Affairs Council), has mobilised to offer a united voice on mental health law reform. It will be giving evidence in Parliament on Wednesday to the Joint Committee scrutinising the Bill.

The Bill says that anyone who has a mental disorder can be given compulsory medical treatment if they are considered to be at risk of suicide, serious self-harm or serious self-neglect, or for the protection of others. Stated this baldly – mental disorder plus risk leads to compulsory treatment – it might seem reasonable. But each part of the equation is problematic.

The Bill’s definition of ‘mental disorder’ is so broad that it appears to include learning disabilities, epilepsy and autism. The definition of ‘treatment’ is so broad that it includes nursing, care, counselling, education and work training. Also, the risk that a patient will self-harm or harm others is extremely hard to predict. Predicting risk involves negotiating medical judgement, professional self-interest and media-driven public anxiety. Public fear of attacks by ‘mad axemen’ is high, but in fact such incidents are very rare.

A recent Social Exclusion Unit report says that fewer than 5 per cent of the small number of people who kill a stranger have symptoms of mental illness – even though common mental health problems affect up to one in six of the general population at any one time. Being a young man or being drunk both correlate with violent crime much more closely than does being mentally ill, but, quite rightly, nobody advocates preventive detention for young men or alcoholics.

Yet there is a popular association between mental illness and dangerousness. The negative professional consequences for a psychiatrist of failing to detain someone who turns out to be dangerous outweigh those for detaining someone who is not a risk – even though the personal consequences for a detained patient are severe.

So mental health professionals will be under pressure to practise defensively and, if in doubt, to detain. The broad definition of ‘treatment’ to include non-therapeutic methods, such as nursing and counselling, means that it will be possible to find a legal way to detain a person whose condition is unlikely to improve with treatment.

Another element of the Bill which has caused concern is the introduction for the first time of compulsory treatment in the community rather than in a secure hospital environment. This threatens to increase the overall number of people subject to compulsion – the number of available beds will no longer impose an upper limit on the number of people who can be given compulsory treatment.

Many mental-health service-users are worried that the threat of future detention will be used to encourage compliance with community-treatment orders. Increased use of compulsion in general may make people with mental-health problems more reluctant to seek treatment with mental-health services.

Access to mental health services is a real problem, which this Bill does nothing to address. A survey last year found that more than one in four people were turned away when they sought help from mental health professionals; a similar proportion took more than 18 months to get any sort of help. The longer people go without help, the more severe their mental illness can become, and the harder it is to treat them.

For far too many people, their first experience of mental health services comes through being given compulsory treatment. By increasing the scope of compulsion, without guaranteeing a legal right to care and treatment for mental illness, the new Bill makes this situation worse.

The proposed extension of compulsory treatment has meant that some of the undeniably good elements the Bill contains, such as the right to an advocate and the improved Mental Health Tribunal system, have generally gone unnoticed.

But an astonishing proposed cut has also been under-reported. This is the reduction in entitlement to free continuing care after a period of compulsory detention for treatment. Currently, this is available for as long as the patient needs it, and it is crucial in ensuring that people receive support after discharge and do not relapse. The draft Bill cuts this to just six weeks, far below current provisions, which could seriously endanger people’s recovery in the community.

All of this, though, has been relegated to the background by a single dominating fact: the Government is seeking to extend its ability to lock up people for being ill. In doing so, it has made a clear choice. Rather than focusing on the humanity of those with mental-health problems, and seeing them as autonomous individuals who might need help, the Government has drawn up legislation that frames them in terms of their strangeness. It sees them as threats from which the public needs protection.

Wednesday, 3 November 2004

Electoral college votes

Speaking of silliness, when I saw this letter in today's Guardian I almost fell off the bus:
The unlikely Kerry coalition of Guardian readers and, it appears, Tory MPs should not give up hope. Electoral college members can vote as they wish and, in recent history, five members of the college have not voted as expected. Kerry could appeal directly to the members of the college - and there must be plenty of free-trade, small government conservatives in it who will be uncomfortable with Bush's record of increasing regulation and increasing government spending much more quickly than his Democratic predecessor. Bush must remember that on key economic and social issues of deregulation, free trade, school choice and health care, many Bush voters regarded him only as the lesser of two evils.

Prof Philip Booth

Institute of Economic Affairs

Yes, Professor Booth. That's going to happen. And when it does, nobody will think it remotely odd or controversial, or raise any questions about whether the electoral college members in question think there's any point asking the electorate anything.

We'll just have to assume that either the letter or the title "Professor" is a joke.


My first post. Before signing up fully, I ran a Google search on "letsbesensible" just to see if anyone else was using it. I got one result. Here it is:

It's one of the silliest articles I've ever read. So I'm sticking with the name.